Biography of Margaret Bourke-White
Childhood and Education
Margaret Bourke-White, the second of three children, was born to Minnie Bourke and Joseph White. Her father was Jewish but the couple chose to raise their children in their mother's Christian faith. It was a decision that would have a profound impact on Margaret who struggled with her "secret" Jewish heritage into adult life.
Margaret and her siblings were raised by a strict mother who demanded high standards of behavior and educational achievement. It was her father, however, who had the deeper impact on her childhood. An engineer and inventor who was responsible for developments to the rotary press, Joseph, according to historian Vicki Goldberg, "introduced Margaret to the world of machines" and shared with her his love of the camera, allowing her to help him develop pictures in the family bathtub. It was of little surprize, then, when some years later Bourke-White produced her first professional series of images of industrial machines.
Bourke-White prized her independence from an early age; breaking away from her family home as soon as she was able (to the chagrin of her mother). Commenting on her wanderlust, the artist herself supplied the following anecdote: "in my case running away began when I was such a tiny girl - I usually managed to negotiate a block or two before Mother caught up with me - that she began dressing me in a bright red sweater with a sign sewed on the back: 'My name is Margaret Bourke-White. I live at 210 North Mountain Avenue [...] Please bring me home.' This amused passers-by so much that I stopped running away, but I never stopped wanting to travel".
In 1921 Bourke-White began attending college at Columbia University where she studied biology. However, tragedy struck shortly after when her father suffered a serious stroke and died less than a year later.
Devastated at the loss of her father, and perhaps in an effort to honor his memory, Bourke-White took up photography and enrolled on a course at the Clarence H. White School. A famed artist (and no relation to Bourke-White) White taught her the foundations for what would be her future career. Her mother also showed support for her daughter by buying her her first camera. In fact, her camera soon provided her with a regular source of income. Demonstrating an entrepreneurial spirit, Bourke-White became a part-time photography counsellor and started a business taking and selling picture postcards of the camp to attendees and at a local gift shop.
Still struggling to meet her school fees, however, Bourke-White received unexpected help from the Mungers; siblings who ran a charity supporting promising college students. With their support she transferred to the University of Michigan to study herpetology (becoming well known amongst her classmates as the girl who kept a pet snake in her dorm room). Despite her major she continued to pursue her love of photography, working, for instance, on the school yearbook.
While in Michigan she began dating engineering student Everett Chapman. They married on June 13, 1924 but the union was troubled from the beginning; not least because of a strong personality clash with her new mother-in-law. Bourke-White was forced to leave school and move to Purdue, Indiana for Chapman's work and when she found she was pregnant in December of that year the couple decided jointly that she would have an abortion, a decision that would bring about the end of their marriage. After a move to Cleveland, in 1925, Bourke-White began taking evening classes at Case Western Reserve. Now a single woman (although it would be several years before they finalized their divorce) she moved to New York and enrolled in Cornell University where she finally graduated with a biology degree in 1927.
Bourke-White's professional career as a photographer began in earnest in 1927 when she took a trip to New York and met the architect Benjamin Moskowitz. He liked her portfolio and encouraged her to pursue work as an architectural photographer, which she did but only after moving to Cleveland to be nearer to her family. As her architectural photography evolved, so too did her sense for fashion and she drew attention for taking pictures throughout the city wearing dresses whose colors matched her velvet camera cloths.
Eventually, Bourke-White's passion for photographing buildings would evolve to take in industrial sites. Of this she stated, "I loved it [the architectural work] but I felt that wasn't the ultimate goal, [but rather] the means to an end. The thing I really wanted to do was to take industrial photographs. I knew that from the beginning. I didn't know whether I would ever be able to sell them. I didn't even realize I was doing something very new. But the impulse was so strong that I had to take industrial pictures". Her new (though in truth it can be traced back to the influence of her beloved father) interest coincided with the emergence of a group of painters who were taking similar objects as the focus for their work. According to Goldberg, she, like those artists, responded, "to the clean shapes, the implicit geometry, the power and the promise of machine forms". While Bourke-White would become perhaps the most famous industrial photographer of her day, her subject matter also served to associate her with the Precisionism group. Specifically, it was her series of photographs of the Cleveland Terminal Tower and later her photographs of Otis Steel that gave her her first tastes of fame. Working within such a male dominated industry, Bourke-White would face resistance from factory owners reluctant to let her roam freely about their sites. In another anecdote, suspecting she was engaged in criminality, Cleveland police officers challenged her as she wandered the city's riverfront at night. Having ascertained that she was not in fact a criminal, but rather an artist, they assisted her on her riverside shoots by providing escorts and even cleaning away litter where required.
The first major shift towards Bourke-White's publishing career took place when Henry Luce saw her Otis Steel pictures and met with her in May of 1929. Impressed with her work, he offered her a job photographing images for his soon-to-launch magazine, Fortune. She was the first photographer to receive prominent name credit and she photographed the main article in Fortune's first issue. Arriving in New York City during the winter of 1929 to photograph the Chrysler building, she decided to move to the city permanently and established a studio in said building.
Through her magazine shots, Bourke-White became well known to the general public who were fascinated by the lengths she would go to make the desired photograph. According to Goldberg, "she waltzed over heights like an aerialist in high-heeled velvet slippers. Photographs exist of her poised, in a neat, head-hugging cloche, on a Cleveland rooftop with her camera and tripod. Other photographs show her standing on ledges high above the city with both hands on her camera. None of this was merely a stunt; she would do anything to get the best picture". Bourke-White would also gain a reputation for being demanding and fractious. Goldberg describes for instance a 1933 newspaper story that stated: "[she] prefers industrial subjects to people because she feels they are more truly expressive of our age". That assertion, however, contradicted an active social life through which she engaged in several affairs, often with married men.
Bourke-White's success lay in large part to her ability to push herself to do new things. On an assignment to photograph industries in Germany in June 1930, Bourke-White obtained rare permission to enter Russia to photograph Moscow factories. It would be the first of several trips to the country and it was in Moscow, in 1931, that a shift in her career took place. She had decided to focus less on machines and more on the people working the machines. Her images of the country would also result in a one-time foray into motion pictures when she created two short travel films about Russia. As a result of her "human interest" work in Russia, Bourke-White decided to focus on creating images that made a social statement and duly agreed to work on a book project with playwright Erskine Caldwell. Travelling throughout the country they photographed the plight of rural Americans in the depression-hit South.
In 1936, Henry Luce once again offered Bourke-White a vehicle to advance her career. Hiring her to work for his newly launched picture magazine, LIFE; her inaugural assignment, photographing the dams being constructed in the Columbia River Basin as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal building programme, was a great success and became the lead story for LIFE's first issue. She became the first female photographer for the magazine and helped define what it meant to be a photo essayist.
In addition to her work for LIFE, Bourke-White continued to work with Caldwell with whom she regularly travelled on projects. Adding to their first book about the Southern states, You Have Seen Their Faces, published to great success in 1937, the pair published two further books, North of the Danube in 1939 and Say, is this the U.S.A in 1941. Caldwell was married, but the two fell in love and lived together in secret until he eventually divorced his wife. They married on February 27, 1939 and tried to have a child but without success.
Bourke-White briefly left LIFE for a new magazine, PM, in 1940, though she only stayed for four months before returning to LIFE. It was during her second tenure that she began to cover World War II, making her LIFE's first American war photographer. One of her early assignments took her to Russia which resulted in a freestanding book about her experiences entitled Shooting the Russian War published in 1942. She also photographed the British air fleet, the thirteen Flying Fortresses, as they prepared for their first mission and was honored with the opportunity to name a plane (which she christened the Flying Flitgun). Her travels overseas soon took its toll on her marriage and in November 1942 Caldwell filed for divorce.
Turning to work for distraction, she gained permission to join a combat mission in North Africa, but, in December 1942 the ship she was travelling on was torpedoed. Her ordeal only brought her more kudos with the public. According to Goldberg, "Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 movie, Lifeboat, which starred Tallulah Bankhead as a journalist who saves her makeup and her mink coat after a torpedo strike, was widely thought to be inspired by Margaret's adventure". Once she had arrived in Africa, she shot the March 1, 1943 LIFE cover story entitled "Life's Bourke-White Goes Bombing - First woman to accompany U.S. Air Force on combat mission photographs attacks on Tunis". She also published two more books featuring her war coverage, They Called It "Purple Heart Valley" in 1944 and Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly in 1945.
In the immediate post war years, Bourke-White's intrepid work for LIFE gave her the opportunity to capture what would become some of twentieth century history's turning points. First, in 1946, she was sent to photograph Mohandas Gandhi, later publishing a book on her journey in 1947 titled Halfway to Freedom. Later in 1948, Bourke-White interviewed Gandhi just hours before he was assassinated. Soon after, in 1950, Bourke-White travelled to South Africa to document the horrors of apartheid for LIFE.
The last decades of Bourke-White's life were not without controversy. She was accused of Communist sympathies due to her long-time interest in Russia; something the FBI had been tracking through an open file on the artist since 1940. While nothing came of the inquiries, it served to leave Bourke-White shaken and wishing to make a social statement on injustices she travelled to Korea in 1952 to photograph people who, according to Goldberg, she felt had been largely neglected by the world.
The last two decades of Bourke-White's life were profoundly impacted by her diagnosis in 1954 with Parkinson's disease. While she was still able to work for a time, and she even published her autobiography, Portrait of Myself in 1963. In 1969 she had to give up her work and her diagnosis proved to be the eventual cause of her death at the young age of sixty-seven. Despite her personal tragedy, she offered a moment objective reflection, "I wouldn't want to change any of my life even if I had the chance, because it's been the life I wanted [...] I think I've been particularly fortunate; even my two broken marriages and the illness have been important to my own growth and development".
The Legacy of Margaret Bourke-White
Margaret Bourke-White's legacy in the world of art photography, Documentary and Photojournalism is profound. A true trailblazer, she brought an element of excitement and adventure to her profession. Responsible for many "firsts" - the first industrial photographer, LIFE's first female photographer, the first American female war photojournalist, the first woman to take her camera into combat zones - she proved a role model for future generations of professional female photographers including the likes of Lynsey Addario, Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, and Susan Meiselas.
Her photographs are held in many leading museums including a collection of her work in the Library of Congress. In 1933 she created a photomural for NBC in its Rockefeller Center headquarters though it was destroyed in 1950. When, in 2014, the Rotunda and Grand Staircase were rebuilt, Bourke-White's photomural was faithfully recreated as on a 360-degree digital wall which now stands as a centrepiece on the NBC Studio Tour.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 06 Jan 2020. Updated and modified regularly